Has Philadelphia become a cultural backwater?

What do Philly and Spokane have in common?

Some people think of Dubuque as the quintessential culturally isolated city; I imagine Spokane. It’s probably a nice town, but no one seems to visit it. The same is true in Philadelphia.

How well is the Kimmel Center being used? (photo via philorch.org)

Broadway shows used to come here for their tryouts, which meant you could see some top talent. Not nowadays. Nor, with a couple of exceptions, do name artists show their work in Philadelphia galleries. If you’re a native of the city, it’s a place to get away from. You might come back, like Bill Cosby (ouch!) or Kevin Bacon, to give it at a pat on the back. On the whole, though, you’ll side with W. C. Fields.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t gifted performers who make their careers in Philadelphia, and even, in thinking of the city’s much-abused crown jewel, the Philadelphia Orchestra, world-class ones. But cities that aspire to anything beyond provincialism have one thing in common: They not only nurture talent, they attract it. And they get other cities to share their own best with them. The mark of provincialism is to be satisfied with oneself. The best cities — not necessarily the biggest — want to see what the competition has to offer, and be challenged by it.

Mission shrink

That is why Peter Dobrin’s recent Inquirer column should get people thinking. He pointed out that, under current management, the Kimmel Center has retreated from its original mission as a magnet for the best musical talent in the world and has settled for shortchanging its own indisputable asset, the Philadelphia Orchestra, in a hall that will never give it the sound it deserves. (You could argue that, with its long entrapment in the Academy of Music, the Orchestra has never actually been heard in the city whose name it bears.)

Still, something is better than nothing, and the New York Philharmonic has suffered through its own half century of purgatory in Avery Fisher Hall. Major visiting orchestras will come to Philadelphia — they just aren’t asked. This was not the case when the Kimmel opened, and, for the first time, the city drew ranking ensembles on a regular basis.

No longer. Orchestras are expensive, and the current Kimmel management, perhaps encouraged by the Orchestra’s bankruptcy and the clear signal it gave that the city’s elites expect cultural venues to pay for themselves, has pulled in its horns and decided to settle for lighter and cheaper fare. Dobrin might also have mentioned the Annenberg Center, which occasionally hosted a visiting orchestra, or a troupe like the Abbey Theatre, but which now concentrates almost entirely on pop artists.

The sounds of silence

The result is, sitting between the national capital in Washington and the world capital, New York, Philadelphia might just as well be — well, in eastern Washington State. Even the Pittsburgh Symphony, widely welcomed elsewhere, doesn’t call.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra certainly travels. You can read all about its triumphs in foreign capitals in the Inquirer and imagine the notes for yourself. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has pulled up stakes for the season, too. June is here. July and August await us.

Well, there’s still the Phillies.

Enough said.

Our readers respond

Doug King

of Pennsville, NJ on June 07, 2015

What a great article! We have to keep the pressure on Kimmel CEO Ann Ewers to engage visiting orchestras. I have e-mailed her as well as written a (published) letter to the Inquirer regarding this huge deficit in the Kimmel's offerings. I applaud you and Peter Dobrin for bringing this issue to the forefront. (One man who also wrote a letter to the nquirer pointed out that by adding just a few dollars to the price of each Lion King ticket, Ms. Ewers could have bankrolled appearances by visiting orchestras!)

Joseph A. DiLuzio

of Philadelphia, PA on June 07, 2015

Well, one of the reasons this writer, professor of French and Italian, left academe is academicians like this one. Philadelphia, metropolis and cultural Mecca, is compared to Dubuque and Spokane. So the fact that Philly is neither New York nor Washington makes it analogous to D and S? Absurd. And I would put it to Mr. Zaller that before besmirching Spokane, he might see the need to visit it first. With disgust from a proud Philadelphian and Italian, Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D.

Gil Feinberg

of Philadelphia , PA on June 10, 2015

Not getting senseless Broadway tryouts is hardly an insult. We have so much musical talent and options that it seems churlish to complain. And no "top artists"? Instead we've got great local top artists.

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